Why Consensus Decision Making is Usually Most Effective

In some cultures consensus decision making is the norm. Others prefer the majority wins approach. Everyone else is somewhere in the middle, accepting majority decisions but at least trying to make this decision more acceptable to the others.

Proponents of the majority rule argue that it is the fastest way to reach a decision. Indeed it is. Yet there is a significant drawback: a decision taken quickly that is opposed by many will not be so quick to implement. The people who never agreed in the first place can delay and obstruct the implementation in every way possible, at least by a lack of enthusiasm.

This is one of the reasons I always preferred a consensus approach to decision making..Then I realized that it also has the advantage of being effective in a wider range of cultures making it especially useful for global organizations.

Now I learn  that there is another very compelling reason to prefer consensus decision making. Recent research at Brigham Young University and Princeton published in American Political Science Review has demonstrated that women speak less when they are outnumbered in decision-making bodies (see Why Women Speak Less When They are Outnumbered in Psypost for an executive summary). So even if they are sitting at the decision makers table they do not always speak out and thus have less influence than they should. But the researchers also noted that this difference disappears when decisions are made by unanimous vote rather than just a simple majority.  Clearly what is happening in the consensus decision case is that everyone is being involved, all information and considerations are taken into consideration and you end up with a better quality decision, and one that will be implemented with broad support.

You see a similar effect when multinational teams meet to decide something. In a majority vote scenario people from consensus cultures often do not speak up. I found that when I chair meetings in these cases that I can only find out what they think by asking them directly -- a very effective technique for guiding the discussion in any meeting but especially valuable in a multicultural context. Once you switch to a unamimous vote consensus approach then everyone participates.

Combine these cultural and gender-balance benefits with the intrinsic advantage of a consensus decision and you have a very compelling reason to aim for a consensus in most situations but there are still a few situations where the majority rule is still useful. The most obvious is in an emergency, where a top-down hierarchical approach is sometimes needed to respond very quickly and in this case there is no time for a consensus. Another case is where someone from a non-hierarchical culture is leading a team of people from a strongly hierarchical culture who are at a lower level. In this case the leader's attempt at brokering a consensus could be viewed by the others as indecision or incompetence.

Related Posts About Culture

Three Non-Obvious Issues in Multicultural Meetings

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